Bill Frisell’s rich history with the Walker Art Center—spanning a diverse range of projects, commissions, and collaborations—began 36 years ago when he first appeared with Jan Garbarek’s quintet. Walker music programmer Chuck Helm invited Frisell to play at the Walker multiple times in the subsequent years, including key engagements with his classic first quartet, whose music is the focus of the new collaboration with the Bad Plus, premiering over two performances on September 29. Helm also presented Frisell’s first duet concert with legendary guitarist Jim Hall and showcased Frisell’s artistry in bands led by John Zorn and Don Byron. After he left the Walker to become Director of Performing Arts at Wexner Center for the Arts in 1991, Helm continued to support Frisell (he retired from the Wexner in July 2017). When Helm presented the work of the Bad Plus early in its career, the band’s members, raised in Minnesota and Western Wisconsin, told him they had been avid followers, as far back as high school, of the Walker jazz concerts he organized—including Frisell concerts.
The Walker’s Senior Curator of Performing Arts, Philip Bither, also has a relationship with Frisell dating back three decades, through concerts he curated at Brooklyn Academy of Music in the 1980s and Vermont’s Flynn Theater in the 1990s. Upon arriving at the Walker in 1997, he spearheaded the Walker’s commissioning of the Blues Dream project, one of Frisell’s first expanded ensembles, and Disfarmer (co-commissioned with Helm at the Wexner Center), and now this new Bad Plus collaboration. Nearly two years ago, Bad Plus drummer Dave King told Bither that a dream project for the trio would be to collaborate with Frisell, reimagining the guitar virtuoso’s own music for his groundbreaking quartet from 1985 to 1995. As he tells Helm in this recent conversation, this was the music that so influenced him and band mates Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson in their own music, fueling their rise as jazz innovators in their own right.
Chuck Helm: How did the idea for this collaboration with Frisell come about?
Dave King: The idea originated with me, actually. We played a little bit with Bill. When we first came out in 2002, Bill was a real vocal supporter. He had heard a tune of ours on the radio, and he was just like, “Who are these guys?” And then he came to see our first show in Seattle. That’s when we officially met and talked with him. I’d seen him so much growing up, as you know. That’s because of the Walker. He was really complimentary to us. It was a huge moment for us because he was such an important figure, especially to me and Ethan [Iverson], but me especially. Everyone is a huge Frisell fan, but I really bit down hard on Bill’s music back then.
We ended up doing a little bit of playing in the last few years. We played Newport Jazz Festival, playing Paul Motian’s music after Paul Motian passed, and then we played Lincoln Center. I think we did four shows at Lincoln Center. We did a lot of the Paul Motian music, but also a few things that’s out of Bill’s repertoire. I think we played Lonely Woman, or something from Ornette. We had such a good time playing together.
Helm: You guys did a Sonny Rollins tune, too.
King: We did. We did No Moe, which I think Bill had recorded before on his record Have a Little Faith. We played these few shows, and they were really strong. Everyone was just really feeling good about it, especially this Newport show we did. And we noticed that Bill was playing some of the more aggressive stuff that he would do back in the ’80s. With his delay pedals…
Helm: Kind of a dirty sound.
King: Exactly. This thing that only he can do. In all of his music to date, he incorporates all these things, but he was really bringing that avant-garde Bill Frisell thing back with us a bit.
Then we were thinking about doing a tour of Paul Motian’s music, and then it became, “I don’t know if we should do that,” and then Joe Lovano wanted to become involved as well, because of the Motian trio, which would’ve been great, but then it became a little bit more complicated. We shelved it, with the idea that, at some point, we would do something again.
I talked to the guys and said, “What if we did the repertoire that hinted at the way Bill was really playing pretty much with us?”—which was this combination of his beautiful, ethereal playing and also this aggressive avant-garde playing. They were like, “Of course, yes. Oh my God. Wouldn’t that be amazing?” I just took the reins.
I called Bill. He was totally receptive right away and loved the idea. I said, “What if we focused on a 10-year period of music from 1985 to 1995?” We thought it would be nice to use that 10-year period for context. Those are records I know really well, so I went in and curated the tunes. I picked all these tunes from these records, and then I sent them to Bill and he okayed those and got the charts going.
I’d also spoken with Philip [Bither], either about doing something Bad Plus–related, because they had not presented The Bad Plus in a commissioned format. Philip’s a good friend and a real supporter, and he knows our history with you, and with the Walker being so important to us, I just said that whole thing to Bill. I told him, “This is where we saw you when we were in high school. This is where we saw you when we were preparing to get into improvised music. It was these seminal concerts that were at the Walker from this time period.” He was just like, “Oh my God, it makes perfect sense.” He’s, of course, the nicest guy ever, but I think he really got it. We sensed he was really into this and honored to do it. So, we took these tunes, and we’ve been working them. That’s how it started. And obviously, getting a couple of other bookings, and taking it to the Vanguard is going to be really exciting, but world premiering it at the Walker is really great. It’s the perfect circle that occurred.
Helm: I totally agree. Could you just talk a bit about you and Reid and Ethan and your cohort in the Golden Valley renaissance, Craig Taborn? You guys were in high school and coming to see live jazz at the Walker in the ’80s? Didn’t you guys meet Ethan at these shows and started talking about, “We should play,” and that sort of thing?
King: Yeah. Obviously, it was an incredibly important place for us especially, but also for anyone interested in the fringe element of jazz at the time. We grew up really being interested in creative music. We would see all the shows at the Dakota with the more straight-ahead jazz guys, or the Guthrie presenting Wynton Marsalis a lot, and all these other things.
But the Walker, which you were curating at the time, provided us with this huge other perspective, and it was one that resounded with us a great deal because you were including not only jazz and improvisers but also new music ensembles and avant-garde ensembles that were never going to get a gig anywhere else, and highlighting these things as great American artists.
It made us feel like this was the ultimate indie experience. It was way more indie than punk rock could be. It was like, you’re seeing these shows and you’re one of four young people in the audience. It wasn’t like seeing the Replacements at the 7th Street Entry, if you’re sitting there watching Last Exit, or something. If I recall, you brought Brötzmann in, in 1984. Am I recalling that right?
Helm: Oh, yeah! Last Exit with [Bill] Laswell and Sonny Sharrock.
King: I was there, and so was Craig! That’s one of 50 shows you produced that we were at. I mean, I saw everything. And Reid and Craig. It’s incredible that the three of us have continued this trajectory of the love of this discovery, and it continues into making a career out of it, and that belief that it could be recognized by people. It started by seeing these shows at the Walker.
Ethan was, it turns out, at a lot of these shows, but I didn’t meet him at the show. He’s three years younger. Reid met Ethan when we went to Eau Claire one year. Ethan’s from Menomonie, and Ethan was playing with college groups already, but he was 15 years old. He was one of those kids. Kind of a down-to-business young man. He introduced me to Ethan on a summer break before he moved out to Philadelphia, so Ethan and I met in 1990. When we first played together, we were only 19, 20 years old. When we talked over the years, he just mentioned one show, and I said, “Oh, I was there.” We’d be in the van on the tour with The Bad Plus, and he’d say, “Do you remember that show at the Walker? Naked City,” and we’re like, “Oh, yeah. I was there.” It’s one of those things where Ethan was at a lot of the same shows, even younger than us.
We didn’t know it, but really, Craig and I and Reid saw Geri Allen with Pheeroan akLaff and Anthony Cox. The list goes on. In fact, it was just the place that we were able to discover the stuff, see it happening, see an audience for it, see it curated well. The impact was huge, basically.
Formally: I’ve done this before, but thank you for doing that, Chuck, because it was really…
Helm: It was pretty bold.
King: Highest level, man. What you did was highest level. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I haven’t seen it equaled, so thanks.
Helm: Well, thanks, man. I appreciate it. In fact, when I first met you guys, as The Bad Plus, it was in New York. You were playing Roulette in 2001. I remember because Roulette at that time was about three blocks from the World Trade Center site. I went down to the site after the show. I was introduced to Ethan when he was music director for Mark Morris, because I had Mark’s company out at the Wexner Center. And Mark and his manager at the time, Barry Alterman, would say, “Oh, you’ve got to go see Ethan’s band.” I mean, I know you guys got involved in some of the things that happened right?
King: With Mark?
King: Oh, yeah. We’ve done a lot with Mark. We wrote a piece for him. We also did Rite of Spring, and he ended up working on that with us.
Helm: I went to your show and I loved it, and I went backstage to introduce myself and offer you guys a gig, and Craig was there, too. I remember, I introduced myself. You guys were like, “Oh, no. We know who you are,” and you started talking about all these shows at the Walker that you’d seen.
It blew me away. It’s not even so much a personal thing, but it’s just that, as somebody who puts on shows, you always think very short-term about the impact of shows. You say, “Did a lot of people come? Did they love it? Did a review come out?” “Was the artist happy?” All this stuff, but you don’t think, oh, 15 years later, there’s going to be a group of high school guys who were in that auditorium that are going form this group. And a year later, they’re going to be on the cover of Downbeat.
King: That’s a great way to put it.
Helm: It’s long-term.
King: Yeah. We’ve laughed to each other because we’re like, “Well, there really hasn’t been another wave of four or five young guys from Golden Valley, North Minneapolis, that have stormed the jazz world”—and you curated all these shows.
I, of course, remember, you were the first person to give The Bad Plus a show in an arts center outside of New York and Minneapolis. You booked us at the Wexner, and that was like, “Oh my God.” You immediately threw us a big bone there. I remember, we drove down and played a couple of little gigs in Madison and Milwaukee, and we drove down and played the Wexner. It was a huge thing because it was really before the big push that occurred.
Helm: But the music was there, you know? When I saw you guys live, it’s like, “Oh, shit. This is really fresh and really happening. We’re doing this.”
King: Yep. I remember like it was yesterday, you coming up to us. I’m just like, “You don’t need to introduce yourself to us, man.” Everyone was like, “Chuck Helm is here.” I’m like, “Holy shit!”
Helm: Tell me, for you and for the guys in the Bad Plus, what was the particular appeal of Bill’s work? I just want to preface this. One of the things about you guys, looking at that era of Bill’s career: I, too, loved Bill so much back then. I would think “Okay, I’ve got to figure out a different way to bring Bill Frisell every season, as much as I can.” And at the Walker, his first duet gig was with Jim Hall. We did Naked City. He came out with Don Byron once. I even booked him with Paul [Motian], but the concert happened a month after I left for Columbus. But he was a regular presence at the Walker during those years because of my personal interest in seeing him in as many contexts as I could, but the appeal of Bill, I mean, you’re looking at the music that Bill wrote for his classic quartet with Kermit (Driscoll) and Joey (Baron). What was the appeal of that music at that time to you, and what did you see in it then, and what have you learned about revisiting that music for this project?
King: Well, that’s a great question. One of things that appealed to us is that it felt like that Bill always had this identity as a leader. It felt like it was a band sound. Number one, Bill is like nothing else. There’s jazz guitar up until Bill Frisell, and then there’s after Bill Frisell. You have to somehow deal with Bill Frisell, as far as I’m concerned. I think, he’s one of those voices in jazz history, you know?
Helm: I agree. Bill’s somebody like Monk or something.
King: Exactly. It’s just a voice in jazz history that changed the game, and everybody knows it. Immediately, having that iconoclastic identity was very appealing to us. We were all non–rule followers, really had attitudes about what it should be, but also came from a place where we really were deeply indebted to the history of the music. That’s why we would see a lot of straight-ahead music. I always felt that Bill had his feet in both the past and the future all the time. That was a real important thing to see and get to know.
Also, just the level of pace that Bill has when he improvises. It’s almost like he’s incapable of having an off night. That’s incredibly inspiring and was incredibly inspiring to see, at that time, how consistently fresh he sounds.
He appears to be able to just play the exact thing that’s needed. It’s an incredible combination of ultimate maturity as an artist meets the gangster that would all of a sudden overtake the room with his maniacal delay pedal-distortion avant-garde attack. That’s incredibly appealing when you’re sitting there going, “Okay. This is jazz, and this is whatever,” and then there’s this guy creating this universe over in the guitar area.
And then you meet up with Joey Baron and Hank Roberts and Kermit Driscoll, all of them so unique and iconoclastic that the whole thing hit us like a laser beam. It was just like, “That’s the shit!”
And then the way that they play with such tremendous feel and tremendous passion. You think of the avant-garde, maybe the ’80s avant-garde, as maybe there’s limitations as far as feeling. Maybe it’s a little cold or whatever. Those guys, it was the deepest feel structures as well. All of them swinging their asses off. The music had this undulation and swing. It felt like group music. And Bill just being the mad ring leader with this very quiet personality, the whole thing was very appealing.
Then also, just the idea of playing your own music. Here he is, he’s got a concept, and he just rolls in and plays his own music. I never remember seeing charts on stage. And that’s something the Bad Plus never has; we’re never reading music on stage. It just felt like they show up and play their music. In that way, again, it was hugely inspiring to enter the room and see that.
Helm: I want to ask you specifically, since you’re a drummer, what kind of impact seeing Joey Baron had on you when you were that young?
King: It was, of course, huge. These guys are probably the only guys, Chuck, that I slightly turn into a little bit of a fanboy around. I’m usually able to keep my shit together, but to this day, when I run into Joey Baron, it’s difficult for me to not remind him of the impact—just to be encouraged to think what you can contribute to the canon, you know?
Seeing Joey Baron at that time was very eye-opening. It was like, “You mean, you can do that? You can play jazz, but you can play that loud? You can play jazz, and you can play that flippantly at times?” There’s humor in it. There’s dead-serious concepts. Everything.
Helm: I think about Joey and how he is to this day, it’s like, “This guy, he is so clear that it’s so joyous; that he likes it.” That thing. You have a glint in your eye and it’s like, “Let’s get it going here.”
King: That’s exactly correct. Well, I think that joy element is present. Of course, it was present with those guys. When I hear Albert Ayler or when I hear Ornette Coleman, I hear this joy music. I don’t hear this staring at your feet and preciously being noncommercial or something. I hear a joy music.
For me, to get the chance to play anything is that feeling. I remember when I used to see Billy Higgins, the same way he would smile and do whatever, it reminds you, you get to do this, you get to perform music for people, that people have shown up here. It’s really the ultimate gift. I’m incapable of not allowing in the joy of it. It doesn’t matter how tired you are, or traveled, or whatever bad food you had to eat at the airport. The whole thing is like, man, I remember not being able to do any of this for a living. And struggling. And I also remember going to these shows and seeing those beautiful programs and thinking, “Man, if my name was in the program and I was doing this!” Those dreams are real for some people, and some people dream about being in the NFL or doing whatever. It’s like, these were our dreams… Craig and I and Reid. For sure, and Ethan.
I always think how I felt as an audience member at the Walker. They would walk onto that stage and it would just be like, “Oh, man. I gotta do that. I gotta make that happen.”
Again, when you booked us at the Wexner, you were ahead of everybody on that tip. You immediately framed us in the art center world, and it was like, “Here we go. This is the shit.” Not only is Chuck booking us, but I felt that it was coming. To do this now, to walk on stage, even though it’s not the old Walker theater, which would be completely surreal. I would love it to actually have been that theater. Even though I love the new theater and I’ve played it, I was dreaming that we could somehow inhabit that old theater, which I think they use for films and things. And walk onto that stage with Bill.
Helm: I wanted to touch back to something that you started to talk about. The music that Bill wrote from ’85 to ’95, principally for their classic first quartet, which is the focus of this program that you’re doing with Bill at the Walker. You mentioned about how Bill was really writing for an ensemble. And it was really about a group sound and a group concept and how important that was to you, as well as Hank and Kermit and Joey and Bill himself. But it seems to me that that compositional approach to an ensemble opens it up to other voices, other instruments, like you guys are going into.
King: You mean, the idea that Bill opened up the idea of the instrumentation?
Helm: That he composed with the idea of an ensemble idea. It’s not about, “Okay, who’s going to solo next?” The melodies and the structure of the tunes were just as important.
King: Oh, yes. That is a great point that I would’ve liked to have made. Thank you for saying that. Group improvisation was huge in the Frisell trio and in the quartet with Hank as well, where it never felt like “Oh, here comes the guitar solo,” and everyone’s just back there politely comping and, “Here’s the bass solo, and here’s…” You never hear a bass solo, you never hear a cello solo. That idea of accompanying everything with this idea of group improvisation. Of course, the responsibility on the musicians is so high, at that point, to be able to support and at the same time interact in a way that’s not a sideman role.
I don’t think any group that I remember seeing, unless it was a complete free jazz ensemble, had that mentality of playing a song and then playing a structure of a song. Because you hear all those forms in Bill Frisell’s music, too. A lot of it has these strict forms. In a way, almost, it sounds like Monk’s music, where you can really hear the song throughout the improvising.
Having those guys all interacting with each other in a way that feels less like it’s just a solo. That was huge for us as well. I never heard that before or since on that level that Bill was doing and the Motian Trio as well, where you’re hearing that interaction. So, yes, that part of the language was huge for all three of us. I would point to Bill as a major influence on that front as well, absolutely.